Four Downs: Breaking down Lions’ porous defense, reworked offense and what’s next

Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 48-45 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

First down

Before “Hard Knocks” made him a star, linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez was already making headlines as a fixture in our daily camp observations. But the HBO documentary series was able to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how much the sixth-round draft pick was impressing the coaching staff.

In the series’ second episode, we got a peek into linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard’s meeting room, where he was chewing out his veteran players, telling them he was sick of praising a rookie for doing his job more consistently better than the guys who have been in the league for a minute and should be performing at a higher level.

After the Seattle game, it’s fair to suggest Sheppard’s speech from two months ago is applicable to the entire defense.

Rodriguez isn’t without his flaws, particularly in downfield coverage, but when taking in the full body of work through four games, there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s been Detroit’s best defensive player. That’s both a credit to him and an indictment of the rest of the unit’s performance.

And while there are plenty of disappointments on a defense that’s giving up more points per game than any team in NFL history, it’s difficult to not be disappointed with Aidan Hutchinson’s impact in the first four games.

His supporters will be quick to point out he has three sacks. I’d counter all three came in one half of one game and were the result of his teammates creating those opportunities. And while he wasn’t shut out on the box score like he was a week ago in Minnesota, the No. 2 pick in the draft continues to struggle to make a meaningful impact on a snap-to-snap basis.

Hutchinson is struggling as both a run defender and pass rusher. And while he’s leading the team with 14 quarterback pressures, a significant portion of those have come on stunts where another defender has done the work to open the lane. When it comes to winning individual matchups on the edge, it’s not happening.

Now, it’s true, he’s seeing more double-teams than the average defensive end, but that doesn’t explain away the overall lack of production. Myles Garrett, prior to his recent off-field injury issues, wasn’t having trouble winning in the face of a similar rate of double teams — because that’s what elite rushers do.

And yes, it’s fair to expect more out of a rookie, especially a top-10 pick. Penei Sewell certainly didn’t have these kinds of issues last year, and he had less collegiate experience, had sat out the previous season, and was being asked to play a new position.

The Lions are desperate for anyone to step up on defense, to set a tone as a playmaker. Hutchinson is supposed to be a big part of the foundation and it’s time to start producing like that.

Second down

Last week, I opined in this space that Detroit’s offense was bordering on injury-proof. I had no idea how much they intended to test that bold proclamation when Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark and D’Andre Swift would eventually be ruled out for Sunday’s game.

That’s three of the team’s top-four playmakers on offense and represented more than half of the team’s production through three weeks. So, if they ever wanted to make me look stupid for reacting to a small sample size, this was the time.

Instead, coordinator Ben Johnson made me look reasonably smart, which isn’t an easy feat. With a starting receiver corps of Josh Reynolds, Quintez Cephus and Tom Kennedy, paired with a backfield led by Jamaal Williams, the Lions managed to rack up more than 500 yards and 45 points. It’s jaw-dropping, really.

Every team preaches the next-man-up mentality. And that’s necessary. Injuries are going to come in football and you have to count on the backups to fill the voids in the starting lineup, for however long that may be. But to think there’s not going to be a drop-off — particularly when there’s multiple injuries on one side of the ball — is more lip service than reality.

But, at this point, the Lions’ offense has managed to epitomize the ability to keep moving forward regardless of circumstances, and it’s a credit not only to Johnson, but the offensive-position coaches, as well as quarterback Jared Goff.

Third down

The Lions made a somewhat surprising decision to start rookie safety Kerby Joseph, ahead of JuJu Hughes, in place of the injured Tracy Walker. All through camp and the preseason, Hughes was clearly the No. 3 safety on the depth chart, and he continued in that role when Walker went down because of a torn Achilles in the first quarter last week. Yet, it was Joseph getting the nod and playing 100% of the defensive snaps on Sunday.

Admittedly, it’s easy to judge a player on the biggest moments, good or bad. In Joseph’s case, he was involved in a pair of touchdown receptions, getting beat in man coverage for the game’s first score, and later getting caught in a communication breakdown that resulted in an easy TD later in the first half.

But on second look, it was a solid performance for the still-developing rookie. On the first touchdown, Joseph was actually in reasonably tight coverage against tight end Will Dissly on the back-shoulder ball, and even turned to locate the pass. Unfortunately, the young defensive back didn’t finish well, making for an easier catch than it should have been.

You can feel good about what Joseph did well on that play and know that making a play on the ball, or the receiver’s hands, is coachable and correctable. It might not come instantly, but as long as he continues to be in position, the pass breakups should come with continued refinement of his skill set.

On the second touchdown, it’s easy to understand what Joseph was thinking, trying to switch off coverage assignments on a pick play. And without knowing Detroit’s rules in those situations, I don’t think we can definitively say the rookie was wrong. Regardless, you can like where his head was at processing the moment live, even if the result was bad. And that’s another area that should improve with more experience and film study.

Otherwise, I thought Joseph was in good position much of the afternoon, and he was rarely tested by Seattle beyond those two throws. In addition to the coverage improvements, he’ll need to continue to develop his understanding of his run-gap responsibilities and be willing to play with physicality in those scenarios. All said, he’s going to benefit from this early and unexpected playing time, putting him in position to be a quality contributor in 2023.

Fourth down

Obviously, things are going poorly for the Lions right now. Instead of sitting 3-1 on the season and dreaming of making a run at a postseason berth, they’re 1-3 and wondering what it’s going to take to fix the worst defense in the league.

The bad news is it can get worse and doom is on the doorstep. While no loss is easy to stomach, New England is on deck, where former Lions coach Matt Patricia is unofficially coordinating the Patriots’ offense.

It’s too early to know how it’s going to shake out, but there’s a reasonable chance the Patriots are going to be starting a third-string rookie at quarterback. And based on how Bailey Zappe did in his debut on Sunday, stepping in as an injury replacement and completing 10 of 15 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown, he looks more than capable.

The possibility Patricia, who drove the Lions into the ground during his three seasons with franchise, could be in line to emerge victorious in a revenge game would be worse than the Bills carrying Jim Schwartz off the field in 2014.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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